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Mon Dec 15, 2014, 02:53 PM

Our Unrealistic Hopes for Presidents

A great piece by Brendan Nyhan on how the idea a president can reach across the aisle is irrealistic.

[link:http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/14/upshot/our-unrealistic-hopes-for-presidents.html?_r=0&abt=0002&abg=0|Our Unrealistic Hopes for Presidents

When will we give up on the idea of a leader who will magically bring consensus and unity to our politics?


The public and the news media still want someone who meets the mid-20th-century ideal for a modern president: a uniting figure who works across the aisle to build support for his agenda and commands public opinion from the bully pulpit. While this image was always mostly a myth — presidents typically struggle to move polls or legislators’ votes — the political realities of the time did allow presidents to build more diffuse coalitions in Congress and attract broad public support when the circumstances were favorable.
However, the political system that helped enable this approach is disappearing. The mid-20th century was a historical anomaly — a low point in polarization that was made possible by the ugly history of race in this country, which enabled the rise of a group of conservative Southern Democrats who functioned almost as a third party. After the civil rights movement, the parties realigned on the issue of race, setting in motion a return to the historic norm of polarization that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century. This process, which is transforming all of our nation’s political institutions, has been supercharged by the way the parties have become more closely aligned with ideological movements than ever before.
As we approach the next presidential campaign, we need to stop asking who can achieve the unity that has eluded Mr. Obama. For better or worse, the partisan presidency is here to stay. There are some people the next president will never get, as Mr. Rock puts it. The question we should ask instead is whether the candidate we choose will — or can — govern well without their support.

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